Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

Framework for Explaining Change

The Becoming Americans theme explains how we, the Foundation’s historians, believe history works. We understand that the distinctive values and beliefs that give this nation its identity have been formed in a complex, never-ending, give-and-take process of conflict and accommodation. It is a story that tells how diverse peoples, holding different and sometimes conflicting personal ambitions, evolved into a society that valued both liberty and equality. Americans cherish these values as their birthright, even when their promise remains unfulfilled. At stake always have been the aspirations of ordinary people. The philosophical and constitutional principles that validated those aspirations came later.

This ceaseless tug-of-war among self-interested parties has always been the central dynamic in our democracy. It has always been the aggressive force that challenged the status quo and undermined the prevailing balance of power. The clash of interests that animates the Williamsburg story deserves our special attention because these were the encounters that profoundly shaped American identity and American values.

Diverse People
Many different peoples met in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Europeans from numerous nations and regions, Africans from distant and often dissimilar societies, and Native Americans from many tribal backgrounds.
Clashing Interests
The customs, values, and beliefs that new arrivals brought to their encounters with each other and with the environment bore some superficial similarities, but more often were marked by profound differences. The experience of immigration and resettlement exaggerated differences between self-interested individuals and dissimilar ethnic and cultural groups.
Shared Values
Whether the encounters between newcomers were peaceful or confrontational, they gradually produced informal accommodations to a new set of beliefs and values that could already be discerned by the middle of the eighteenth century.
Some of these shared assumptions have become fundamental rights that all Americans expect, however diverse their backgrounds and however differently they understand and apply their common ideals. These values gave meaning to the people’s personal lives most importantly—to their family and social relationships, to their attitudes about gender, class, and race, their work and ambitions for property and wealth, to their ideas and philosophies, and to their religious convictions.
Formative Institutions
These personal values also formed the basic assumptions that created and shaped the economic, political, and cultural institutions that brought order and control to public interactions between different peoples.
Because these personal and institutional values had many practical applications in people’s everyday social relations, they became defining qualities in an emerging American identity. Some served to justify the war for national independence.
Partial Freedoms
The revolutionary debate gave voice to these principles, but later events left their great promise unfulfilled for many. Continuing inequalities of wealth, patriarchal presumptions, and antidemocratic institutions blunted the radical social implications of the revolutionary philosophy and restricted its immediate blessings to a select and privileged few.
The cultural encounters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also produced the ideas and practices that resisted the egalitarian impulse. Racism, violence, environmental degradation, the exploitation of labor, and the deprecation of women became the darker side of the American experience.
Revolutionary Promise
Although these obstacles to the pursuit of happiness persist, the most positive and progressive American ideals have always exerted a powerful hold on the popular imagination. In spite of the inherent contradictions in these ideals and the conflicts they encourage between divergent visions of the good life, they have never ceased to raise expectations and inspire hope that more Americans may secure a meaningful voice in taking responsibility for their own lives.